Mitt Romney is back.
Don’t leap to any conclusions. After all, there are a lot of different ways to be back. You can be back as in “back running for president.” Or just back as in “back in the public eye.” Or back driving to Canada with a dog strapped to the car roof.
Until recently, Mr. Romney just seemed to be looking for a public persona, maybe something between Jimmy Carter (Nobel Peace Prize, eliminating Guinea worm disease) and former Republican presidential hopeful Fred Thompson (starring in TV ads for reversible mortgages).
Mr. Romney was host of an “ideas summit” in Utah last week that drew several eager presidential wannabes and a raft of Republican establishment financial figures. Also the former governor of Montana, Brian Schweitzer, the token Democratic speaker.
“It was an ideas conference. I am a person of a lot of ideas,” Mr. Schweitzer said in a phone interview.
The potential Republican candidates ranged from Rand Paul, who seemed to be regarded as interesting but scary, to Mike Huckabee, who we really have to stop encouraging by mentioning his name. But not Jeb Bush, who had a scheduling conflict. Did that mean Jeb Bush is not going to run in 2016?
Moderate Republicans are really desperate to have Mr. Bush, even though he would very possibly be the most boring presidential nominee since … I don’t know. There have been a lot of very dull presidential nominees, but they were not the third member of their family to run at the top of the ticket.
Instantly — instantly — people began speculating that Mitt might be The One. Mr. Romney himself made the news talk show rounds, happily denying that he was interested.
“I brought a number of the 2016 contenders here to meet with my fundraisers,” Mr. Romney said of his summit. “Had I been running, I wouldn’t be doing [that].”
Excellent point. Much of the warmth currently being beamed in Mr. Romney’s direction has to do with the fact that this is a guy who raised $1 billion for his presidential race and is still friends with the people who helped him do it. Mr. Romney, some people speculated, might just want to become the party’s “kingmaker.” You can’t deny that kingmaker sounds like an attractive career goal.
And Republicans have traditionally been nicer to their loser presidential candidates than Democrats. Everyone has forgotten that John McCain even ran. They’ve most definitely forgiven George H.W. Bush for losing his second term. Just the other day, I received a fundraising letter from H.W. on behalf of the Republican National Committee that began: “Friend, I don’t know what your guilty pleasures are in life, but one of mine is socks.” This has nothing to do with Mitt Romney, but I really did want to mention it.
Could powerful moderates in the Republican Party be desperate enough to want to bring back Mitt? The guy who raised $1 billion for his presidential race and still managed to lose the election?
He doesn’t seem to have changed. Still, the little tufts of gray hair by his ears. The way he reacts to difficult questions by looking as if he just whiffed an unpleasant smell. The good old heh-heh-heh.
These are trying times for Republicans. Actually, things are pretty bad for both parties: The Democrats could lose the Senate, and Hillary Clinton’s book sales are iffy. But, at the moment, the Republicans’ traumas are a lot more action-packed. The defeat of the House majority leader, Eric Cantor, terrified many of the party establishment’s supporters, particularly since Mr. Cantor’s opponent ran against Wall Street, big business and bank bailouts.
It’s a problem, if you’re a big-money donor, to be worried that your party is being taken over by crazy people who will alienate the voters in a national election by opposing immigration reform and contraception. It’s a catastrophe to be worried that it’s being taken over by economic populists.
Mitt Romney is never going to run as a man of the people. You will remember how well that worked the last time around. Instead, he’s talking foreign policy. It’s the topic of the moment. And unlike, say, Chris Christie, Mr. Romney has the aura of a serious guy. Unlike, say, Jeb Bush, he is not related to anybody who invaded Iraq.
To win against Hillary Clinton, Mr. Romney said on “Meet the Press,” “the playbook, I believe, is to look at her record. I think you have to consider what’s happened around the world during the years that she was secretary of state. And you have to say it’s been a monumental bust.” The Obama administration, he said, should have armed Syrian rebels and made the president of Iraq ask U.S. troops to stay in his country.
We will try to move past the deep, deep, deep irony of Republicans trying to score political points on Iraq. Really try. It’s just Mitt Romney. And he’s not even running for anything.
Gail Collins is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.